Start DC meets Spoke DC! We sat down with Aaron Balogun, the founder of Spoke DC.
According to Aaron Balogun, Chief Product Officer and founder of Spoke DC, nonprofit organizations have similar marketing goals, but varying degrees of success based on the support they receive.
Enter Spoke DC, a DC-based business that provides technology and online marketing support to nonprofits, helping them raise money and visibility for the good work they do. We caught up with Aaron to talk about his inspiration and plans for Spoke DC.
What exactly is Spoke DC?
Spoke DC provides technology and online marketing services to nonprofits and associations to help them get their message across, engage more members, and raise funds online.
We have software called Spoke, which integrates multiple third-party databases for our clients—but we look at Spoke DC, our company, more as a customer service business first, with software backing.
What was your inspiration for Spoke DC?
In 2007, I started working for a company that was acquired by The Economist. I was helping nonprofits and associations with their online strategies and that’s how I got into the sector.
In that work, I helped nonprofit clients all over the world, and I started to notice trends. They all tried to accomplish the same online marketing goals, but they approached it differently.
What are the common goals that you noticed?
There are four: to raise money, to grow an organization’s volunteer base, to increase engagement, and to advocate for the organization—in legislative policy, international development, or even social development.
Nonprofits have these four internal goals, all focused to drive whatever their individual missions are. The ones that did it very well and succeeded with these goals had the right tech people helping them and had the right tech strategy. The ones that did it poorly didn’t have that. For example, if you want to raise money today and you’re not online, you are not going to be successful.
What made you decide to eventually leave The Economist to start Spoke DC?
While at The Economist, I would have clients that would come to me because we had this great software tool, and they would also need additional services. I noticed with each of the nonprofits, they had to keep going to different people to manage different technologies.
My clients needed a central system that could help them manage each of the platforms they were using, but because many nonprofits are small, they didn’t have the resources to hire a technology firm. So I started working with them on a pro-bono basis as a technology manager.
My managers saw that we were getting all of these requests for services and actually encouraged me to start a business on the side. So I did, while I was at The Economist.
“We’re looking for nonprofits that are doing work that we believe in and that we can join.”
As I worked with these nonprofits, I realized that I was providing the same services for each of them. The technology landscape and online marketing strategies were evolving and each individual nonprofit could not keep up, but I could, because I was doing the same thing for every one.
I started building algorithms to apply tools that would automatically incorporate these strategies—for example, pulling online resources and articles in a nonprofit’s industry so it could quickly understand and respond to what was happening. In 2013, we started packaging these algorithms into a product, Spoke.
Where does the name come from?
It comes from the idea of a hub and spoke. The product itself is the hub and all the tools that we integrate with are the spokes.
One of the things I noticed with nonprofits is that no single company provides a perfect, all-around product. For example, an organization may want to use Constant Contact for email marketing, but it may want to use NetFORUM for its membership database management, and WordPress for its website management.
Our tool does everything and allows you to integrate these different features. So, for example, you can use Spoke for your website and database management, and use PayPal for your payment processing. We integrate with any third-party database.
Do you think integration is a common issue outside the nonprofit sector too?
Yes. We have customers that are for-profit businesses. We target our tool toward the nonprofit sector because of our expertise there, but anyone can use the tool.
What are your plans for Spoke DC in the future?
Spoke DC is a small technology company and most people classify us as a “startup,” but we prefer to classify ourselves as a small business. We’re not looking to be acquired or to gain 100,000 customers in six months. We’re looking for nonprofits that are doing work that we believe in and that we can join.
The amount of us that we put into our work is important—we’re basically working and volunteering at the same time. It’s community involvement for us, not just work.
Finally, I wanted to ask if you have advice for other entrepreneurs who are people of color?
Get mentors. The company is where it is today because of my mentors. My bosses advised me to start the company, and I still have mentors who guide me through the process of working with clients. If I’m having a confusing situation with one of the clients, I reach out to my mentors and have them be the ambassador for the client and kind of bounce ideas off of them.
Spoke DC is a company with female employees, white male employees, African American employees, African employees… One of the drivers for bootstrapping without setting the company up for funding or acquisition is that from speaking with friends, we understand it’s even more difficult to get venture funding as an immigrant or entrepreneur of color. So we operate in a way that we’ll be able to manage our expenses. It has positively influenced our lean management.